― 211 ―

The Housekeeper.

Chapter I

Frank Fort had had endless trouble with servants. His red-headed chum, Percival O'Dowd, said half in joke that he ought to try a housekeeper. O'Dowd thought it preferable to entertaining the notion of a wife. He said he would do it himself, but possessing only a selection which wouldn't carry a sheep to the acre and weighted by a substantial overdraft, he found it necessary to be his own housekeeper, cook, and housemaid, and he always spent from Saturday to Monday at Fort's station, which paid and was not in debt; consequently there was something worth eating to be had for Sunday dinner when there was no domestic upheaval on the tapis and a cook to cook it. O'Dowd, at home, lived mostly upon dried apples (which he always forgot to soak before cooking), and anything he could find about the place. It was quite a godsend to him when a passing traveller ate on the premises a watermelon he had stolen from a neighbouring cockie's, for later a melon vine clambered about the supports of the house on the spot where O'Dowd had been accustomed to throw his washing water, and it bore a few fine melons. Then the goats from the pub. strolled over and ate most of the vine and trampled the rest. O'Dowd had meant to mend the fence round the house, but had gone to the township races instead. He was not in the best of spirits when he offered the advice about a housekeeper to Fort. He had lost money at the races. He always did. This time it was the bulk of a draft his mother had sent him from Ireland to keep Christmas on, and now the hot arid months before the New Year stretched out uninvitingly before him. He had meant to have a case of whisky and, perhaps, a housewarming on the strength of that money. He had intended to buy a new suit and renew his calls at Coolibar ridges, where brown-eyed Rosie Glanvers had just arrived home from boarding-school in Melbourne. But there! The races were responsible. What did they want to hold races just at this time for? “Sure, they ought to have more sinse!”

Frank Fort, or “F.,” as the district called him, laughed, and returned to the subject of the housekeeper.

“The devil always comes shaped like a horse to an Irishman, Percival,” he said, and smoked thoughtfully. “I think I will get a housekeeper, though, someone over 40, eh? That wouldn't scandalise the community, would it?”

“Begobs! Say something over 50, and be on the safe side,” said Percival. Fair and forty, man. Forty's not old enough! She'd be coaxing you to make her Mrs. Fort in no time!”

“My good fellow. you know I do not look at anything over 20,” answered

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Fort, looking sideways at Percival, who winced ever so little as he burnt his fingers with the match he held to the bowl of his pipe.

“My love is like a red, red rose!” sang Fort, and then stretched himself luxuriously in his hammock. “Hit there yourself, O'Dowd?”

“Of course! I'm just the cut for a married man. I've such a fine property behind me. I could feed a wife on the fat of my neighbour's flocks. I certainly couldn't on my own! So it's a wife instead of a housekeeper you're thinking on, old man?”

“Not I! I was only joking. Seriously, O'Dowd, a man is a fool in my opinion to marry before he is 40, at any rate—if then! I am 30, and I want ten more years to kick up my heels in.”

“So it isn't Miss Rosie?” O'Dowd was looking out into the wide sun-dried garden, with its rows of trellised grape-vines.

“It isn't anybody!” Fort yawned comfortably, enjoying the certainty of his own heart-wholeness. “Like a good chap, write out an advertisement for me for a housekeeper, middle-aged, unprepossessing appearance, etc., no encumbrances, not fond of Irishmen. Be sure to put that, Percy, or I'll have her falling captive to your bow and spear straight away.”

Percival drew out his notebook and scribbled down an advertisement, which answered the purpose more or less.

“‘Wanted, housekeeper for station, middle-aged lady, without encumbrance.’ Does that mean children or husband? ‘Apply, stating salary required, etc.’ Now, Fort, how does that suit? I'm afraid you'd be after getting no replies if I put that in about the unprepossessing appearance. Most women are beauties to some men, and all are to themselves, bless ‘em! Besides, if she came on those terms she would all the time be asking you if you thought brains weren't preferable to beauty any day, and I'm quite sure you don't think so.”

“Nor does any man, though they sometimes pretend they do. A pair of red lips against weighty grey brain matter! Ugh! What do we want women for except to look pretty at the heads of our tables and to wear the jewels we hang on them?”

“You're very young yet, Frank, very young,” said O'Dowd, shaking his head. “What about your housekeeper-to-be, now?”

“Oh, I grant you that class. The women who have to work and grow ugly in the doing! Poor devils! Yes, I grant you their use. Washerwomen and the like! And lady helps, etc. But I was thinking of the women we play with.”

“In short, the women with the higher destiny of amusing man?”

“Oh! don't get satirical, old chap. Have a whisky?”

O'Dowd drew the syphon to him. “It's too d—d hot for argument,” he said apologetically.

By the next mail the advertisement for a housekeeper went down to the daily press in the city.

She was a success from the start.

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O'Dowd, the pessimist, shook his red head. “She doesn't look her age,” he said. She had given herself out to be 45, and her hair was grey all over her large shapely head. She had delicate lines about her mouth and a little furrow across her forehead. Percival allowed all that, which Fort made the most of, but her eyes were bright brown as Rosie Glanvers' own, only with the difference which we see between the young bird's, just peeping out of its downy nest, and the faithful collie's, who has watched long bitter nights, and yet not a collie exactly, for a collie's eyes have had all the wolf-dog domesticated out of them. The old wolf was still lingering in Mrs. Armitage's eyes, O'Dowd said.

“You must have been looking pretty closely into them,” said Frank shortly, and Percival laughed in his whimsical fashion, and asked after the yellow rose, with a cunning smile, for Fort was trying to rear Cloth-of-Gold roses in his garden, a thing which the district had never accomplished yet. Some people said it was the fault of the soil, some said the want of the rain, some that the sun was too hot for the greater part of the year. But Mrs. Armitage, who seemed to know everything, maintained that the roses loved the dry weather, and she put on her blue sunbonnet and cared for the cuttings herself. Everything in the house went like clockwork now. The German woman who cooked decided to stay, since there was a “frau” to look after things. She never could get the “Herr” to understand, and the housemaid said that she was a “real lady.” She won the heart of the Scotch gardener by discovering herself as a countrywoman of his own, whose forefathers had let out crofts to his forefathers. “It's a gran' old lowland family she cooms of,” he confided to the Boss, and Fort thought none the less of her for that. “The district will talk,” muttered O'Dowd on the day she arrived. He never said it again. It was obvious that Fort was annoyed, and there was no further occasion to comment on what followed instanter.

The district talked itself blue, but after they met Mrs. Armitage they invited her to their houses, and when she firmly and so sweetly excused herself they talked themselves red and pitied “F.” A tit-bit of scandal is such a blessing in the bush, where people have so much time to walk round it and examine it from all sides. Country air agrees with it when it might become stifled by other interests in the town, and it grows all the time.

O'Dowd still spent his Sundays at the station. The cooking was excellent and he began to despise his dried apples and odds and ends of hastily-fried abominations, and to envy Fort. But, still, though he envied, he did not approve, and watched, figuratively speaking, from afar off. Mrs. Armitage had beautiful hands, and she taught Fort to play cribbage, though he had never cared for cards.

“A nice game for two,” muttered O'Dowd in his moustache, and wished that he had not advised Fort to get a housekeeper. “I never imagined one like her,” he added darkly to himself, which meant that he did not believe in housekeepers with beautiful hands. I think there was a good deal of dog-in-the-manger about Mr. Percival O'Dowd in these days. The rose cuttings progressed wonderfully. Little green sprouts came out about the slim stalks, and one day on riding up to the station Percival was met by Fort with the

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news that there was a bud on one of the Cloth-of-Gold trees. They were “trees” now, they had so waxed and grown great in the land under the care of the beautiful hands. “It is quite a little triumph,” said Fort garrulously. “Rose Glanvers has been trying to grow them ever since she came from school, and every slip she got died first go. Mrs. Armitage has extraordinary luck with flowers.”

But, later on, Mrs. Armitage refused to wear her laurels.

“It is Mr. Fort, every bit as much as my care, that has pulled the roses through,” she said, smiling that charmingly aloof smile of hers. “He is such a clever gardener!”

“And you are a very clever woman,” whispered O'Dowd to his serviette. Aloud he said: “Ah! Mrs. Armitage, when you smile on the flowers what would they be after doing but looking up?” She eyed him curiously for a moment. “Always an Irisman, Mr. O'Dowd,” she said, and passed him the butter.

“She's got my measure, all right,” said Percival to himself.

Then O'Dowd took to riding over to Coolibar ridges, and having long talks with Rosie. And somehow Rosie always brought the conversation round to “F.” and “F.'s” housekeeper.

“She must be a most interesting woman,” she said one day. “But she is so hard to meet. Mother wrote and said she was sorry she was not strong enough to call, and would she drop convention and come here, but she never came.”

“Why don't you go over?” asked O'Dowd, wrinkling his freckled forehead under his red hair. “It would be a kindness, and I'm the man for your escort any day.”

A little devil leaped in his heart. He did not want Fort to marry anybody, not only for Fort's own sake, for it might be as well for him to marry later on. Frank Fort, though his friend, was not the man he wished to give Rosie to. He must finish his wild oat sowing and settle down before Percival would like to see him take this little white heart to reign at the station. He had not much faith in Frank's loyalty to one woman. Nevertheless, Frank was his friend. He did not want to see Frank entangled with a woman with “wolf eyes,” especially one who was ten years at least his senior. Percival did not believe that Mrs. Armitage was 45, but she was certainly older than Frank, and she was—oh! dash her! —she was a woman in a thousand to wind herself round a man's heart, in making herself necessary to him in a hundred ways. He would try a contrast of Rosie's freshness against the maturer beauties of “F.'s” housekeeper.

Rosie rode over to call on Mrs. Armitage, and, on being pressed by Fort, she stayed the night. Mrs. Armitage played hostess instead of cribbage that evening. Percival watched, and was satisfied. Rosie was taken out by Frank to see the new flower on the rosebush in the moonlit garden. They were a long time admiring the flower. Mrs. Armitage won O'Dowd's respect. She sat so still in her high-backed chair; the soft lace about her throat rose lightly to her even breathing, and she smiled and smiled bewilderingly. The Irish-man felt the hot blood rising in his cheeks. He was a skunk to try to spoil

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this fine woman's little game, and after all. …. But she looked up. He decided that he did not like her eyes. He pictured Rosie as a little white lamb astray in the forest, with a sleek wild creature following her up from tree to tree, never showing itself in the light, but stealing gradually nearer—nearer. …. Mrs. Armitage yawned apologetically.

“Do you care about cards?” she said, leaning over and drawing the cribbage-board to her.

“She is going to teach me to play cribbage,” thought O'Dowd, and his pulses quickened ever so slightly.

By-and-bye the two moonlight strollers came in from the garden. Rosie was flushed. She put her hand on Mrs. Armitage's arm when she said “Goodnight,” and called her “dear.” O'Dowd frowned. Fort thought it very nice of her. He beamed affectionately on his housekeeper.

“I am going to ride home with Miss Glanvers early in the morning,” he said to Mrs. Armitage when she returned from showing Rosie to her room.

“Tells her what he is going to do now!” said Percival to the little devil he kept on watch.

“She is a nice child,” said Mrs. Armitage. The lamplight fell on her silver hair and fine head.

“She makes me think of a picture of a French marquise in the reign of Terror,” said Fort later, when the men were smoking on the verandah.

“Who? Rose Glanvers?” asked O'Dowd, wickedly. Fort smoked.

When Fort returned from his ride to Coolibar the following evening it was growing dark. Mrs. Armitage was sitting in a rocking-chair on the verandah in a black dinner gown, the neck and arms filled in with fine black net, which revealed the firm beauty of her shoulders. In passing through the garden Frank had picked a full-blown rose from the sacred tree, and, as he swung up the steps, he held it aloft, shouting boyishly: “Here! Prize to the victor! Te salutant, Caesar!” and he dropped on one knee, his spurs clanking on the verandah boards as he knelt before Mrs. Armitage.

She laughed softly, leaning forward to take the rose.

O'Dowd, watching from the hammock where swung his long legs, noted how her hand hovered a moment over Fort's fair head.

“She'd be stroking his curls if I wasn't here,” he thought, and then said:

“Don't lose sight of the audience, F.”

Fort jumped up and turned a laughing face to him. “I knew you were there, you old thief! Well, watch the end of the play! There, do you remember Francis Barraud's picture in this year's Salon book—‘A la sante de Madame la Marquise’—and the brutes crowding round the marquise, who sits with her proud frightened eyes on the rabble, and the dead body of her husband or lover—I do not know the story, I'm just imagining—on the floor behind her? Now, isn't she the moral of the marquise?” He held the yellow rose against Mrs. Armitage's hair, without actually touching its soft masses.

O'Dowd raised his eyebrows till they encroached on his wide low forehead and almost touched his shock of red hair.

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“Oh—yes—s,” he said slowly, choosing his words, “but I don't remember that there was any rose in the picture; besides, Mrs. Armitage does not look in the least afraid of the rabble—I presume you are the rabble, Fort, and I am the dead husband—or lover? I am sure I should like to be.”

Fort tossed the rose into the housekeeper's lap.

“I don't know if O'Dowd means to compliment us or not, Mrs. Armitage,” he said lightly. “You know he's only a mad Irishman! Well, I suppose I must be off to have a wash before the dinner bell rings!” And he went whistling up the hall to the bathroom.

Far away on the township road they could see the lights of some teamsters' camp fires glimmering in the oncoming dark. In the garden there was a stirring of tiny hidden things that moved among the vines and grass. It was still summer's night, and the bark of a dog at one of the station huts sounded near at hand. Mrs. Armitage rose with a rustling of silken underskirts. O'Dowd had never seen her so fine. “Keeps that for his final subjugation, I suppose,” he grunted to his familiar. To her he said:—

“Fort is nothing but a boy in spite of his thirty years!” She nodded, looking past him dreamily.

“It's a pity we ever have to grow up,” she said, then turned to him and smiled, slowly. He had never imagined that her eyes could grow so soft.

“Do you think he will marry the girl?” she said.

For all the forty years he had spent in growing accustomed to the unexpected, O'Dowd was startled. He had never anticipated such frankness from her. Well, he would be equally frank. He took a step towards her. The dusk had blotted out the finger prints of the passing years from her forehead; he only saw her dark eyes shining through the gloaming.

“He will—if you will let him!” he said boldly.

After dinner the men smoked, to keep away the mosquitoes, in the corner of the verandah, and Mrs. Armitage went to the piano. She played fairly well, though she owned to being out of practice. Once she glided into some Scotch airs, and Fort called out, “Do you ever sing?”

For answer she struck the opening chord of “When the Kye Come Hame.”

The light from the hanging kerosene lamp flooded her head and shoulders, and shone on the yellow rose pinned among her hair.

“Twixt the gloaming and the murk, when the kye come hame.”

Her voice was a little thin and worn on the high notes, but inexpressibly sweet and plaintive. It stole out into the garden, which was lit up now by the shining lances of the advance guard of the full moon, peeping red over the tree tops. It died away among the willows that fringed the creek. A black gin, passing along the station street, paused to listen; the men could see her standing a deeper shadow among the shadows outside the garden fence.

When the song came to an end, Fort thumped applause.

“Now something Irish for Percy,” he said, and she nodded, smiling over her shoulder at Frank. O'Dowd could see that her eyes were wet. She ran her fingers along the keys and began, “I Saw from the Beach.”

  ― 217 ―

O'Dowd leaned forward. Presently his pipe went out.

“Give me back, give me back the wild freshness of morning.”

Aye! The wild freshness of morning! O'Dowd's red head went into his long freckled hands. Fort listened with a complacent smile. “The freshness of morning!” How she wailed her heart out for the unattainable! And Fort sat and smirked.

Percival was a lad again among the peat—a laughing, rollicking, daredevil Paddy! He forgot the years of struggle with drought and misfortune—forgot that he had ceased to have any ambitions, and at a little over 40 had settled down to a hopeless outlook without a struggle. He remembered the blue-eyed colleen he had kissed and promised to go back to, and whom he had forgotten long ago. Ah—the freshness of the morning! This woman understood! She wanted the freshness of the morning to be given back to her again—and why? He looked across at his host's placid face because of this man before him, whose destiny it surely was to eventually settle down and marry Rosie Glanversi Poor little Rosie! Poor Mrs. Armitage! For a minute he forgave her the wild things that looked out of her world-wise eyes for the sake of the longing in her sweet voice. He wanted to kick himself—but, most of all, to kick Frank! Then the music ceased abruptly. Mrs. Armitage rose and shut down the piano, and lowered the wick of the lamp. Fort noticed this with pleasure. He liked thought for little economies in women. It showed that they cared for men's interests. In a certain class of women one looked for extravagance. One did not expect to have to countenance it in one's housekeeper.

O'Dowd sat up and pushed forward a chair.

Mrs. Armitage shook her head. She seemed tired.

“No. I am not coming out,” she said. “Good night, Mr. O'Dowd. “Good night, Mr. Fort. Are you going out with the musterers in the morning?”

“Yes,” said Fort, shaking the ashes out of his pipe over the edge of the verandah. “Will you stay, old man,” turning to O'Dowd, “and lend a hand?”

O'Dowd said that he would, and added, with half a sigh, that he guessed that the selection could look after itself for a bit longer.

Chapter II

A faint rose-and-saffron dawn was stealing over the ridges when the musterers left the head station on the following morning. Shearing time was approaching, and the men would be busy from daylight to dark, and after bringing the sheep in from the pockets of the run. Soon the station would be surrounded by clouds of dust, and noisy with the yapping of the sheep-dogs and the whistling and shouting of the men as they encouraged the sheep to hustle into the yards adjoining the shed, and thence to the tender mercies of the penners-up and on to the shearing floor itself into the hands of Tommy, the novice, who was always wanting tar, and Billy, the ringer, who could do his hundred a day with practised ease, and who prided himself with being able to pink without snicking the sheep.

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The early summer morning air was fresh and sweet with the scent of pale flowering things in scrub and scattered timber. The little lizards looked out from the crevices in the hardwood of the wool-loading stage, and some gaudy-winged parrots came down to drink at the creek, and rose with a whirr of wings, as the musterers splashed through the shallow crossing.

The sheepdogs ran laughing, red tongues glistening, and the men chatted and joked loudly, as they rode behind the Boss and O'Dowd along the swamp oak flats. Fort was whistling cheerily the tune of “When the Kye Come Hame,” and O'Dowd was thinking deeply, with frowning brows. Suddenly he quickened his horse's pace to keep step with Fort's mare, and said,

“She's a fine woman, F., but not for you!”

“What the devil do you mean?” Fort was half amused, half annoyed. O'Dowd leaned forward in the pommel of his saddle to escape an overhanging bough, and answered.

“I mean your housekeeper, of course—one of the ‘poor creatures who have to work, and grow ugly in the doing.’ She's taking a long time about growing ugly, me bhoy!”

“I'd like to know what you're driving at!” was all that Fort said.

“Look here, F., I could have no ulterior object in what I am saying; rather it might play into my hands, if I had ever thought about taking a wife, for you to marry the housekeeper.”

“Damn you, sir!”

“Don't get your hair off, old man, so early in the day! For I'm going to have my say, anyhow! It's all very well, but you and Mrs. Armitage have the house to yourself, and what with cribbage and yellow roses and French marquises—not that she's a bit like the girl in the picture to any man in his senses—and going on your knees and all that, you'll be in the deuce of a hole before long, and, as I have helped you out of other scrapes. I don't see why I shouldn't be allowed to speak the confoundedly interfering word in season to you—or any other young fool!” he added sotto voce.

Fort turned in his saddle, his eyes ablaze.

“You might think of the woman; your tongue is too easy about women!” he said fiercely.

“Yes, but no woman has ever been the worse for knowing me. Fort, can you be after saying the same?”

“Mrs. Armitage might have been my mother!” said Fort sullenly, digging his spurs into the mare. She started and bounded aside, and he tightened the rein.

“Not in the course of nature. She's not a day over 40—that's my belief —and wears well for that. Many a man has married a woman ten years his senior.”

“Well, what of that? You know I don't mean to marry anyone yet awhile.”

“‘But you are more than half in love with your housekeeper all the same.”

“What bally rot!”

There was silence between the two men, broken only by the jingle of bits

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and the creak of saddle leather, and then the overseer and two of the stockmen caught them up and began discussing a broken fence along the route, which a careless boundary rider had overlooked. But all the day Fort's forehead wore an unaccustomed frown, and when O'Dowd turned his horse's head toward the track which led to his selection, which forked from the home road to the station, Fort did not press him, as was his wont, to return with him for another night.

For all that, Percival's words had sunk deep, and the seed was sown on no barren ground.

A few weeks later Percival was in the township, trying to make arrangements about another loan from the bank, and to lay in some stores. He was seriously thinking of chucking the selection, and arranging about a caretaker, while he took a job of droving. A restlessness had been in his blood ever since that night when he had sat on the verandah at the station and listened to a woman's sweet voice yearning over the lost freshness of life's morning. Since Rosie Glanvers had come up a finished young lady from boarding-school, with her brown eyes and her dimples, it had been a sort of creed with O'Dowd that had he been in a position to do so he would have asked Rosie to be Mrs. O'Dowd, but the utter impossibility of keeping even himself in comfort had sensibly debarred him from such a reckless step; and, more than that, the certainty that Rosie's heart was given to Fort had lately been borne in upon him. F.'s most trivial doings were of more interest to her than any feats Percival O'Dowd might possibly perform, and the quick wit of the Irishman was not likely to be mistaken in that direction. But now he asked himself, if he had inherited the impossible thousand a year, which he sometimes dreamed about, would he have laid it at Rosie's feet, even if she had had the bad taste to look favourably upon his red hair and freckles?

He could not say. He only knew that he was ill at ease, and that the wander-lust was in his blood.

As he loitered in the bar of the hotel, one of the men from Fort's came in. O'Dowd shouted, as was his custom, for all faces that he knew, and they passed the time of day.

“Heard about the Boss?” asked the man, winking above his glass. He knew perfectly well that O'Dowd had not been calling at the station lately, and much had been the speculation thereby occasioned in the men's hut. The most acceptable notion was that O'Dowd had been caught making love to the housekeeper, and that Fort had kicked him out. We like our stories spicy in Arcadia.

“No,” said O'Dowd shortly. “How's shearing going on?”

But the man was not to be put off.

“Boss is goin' to be married,” he said. “Blanky fool!” the whisky beginning to take effect on a head never very strong.

O'Dowd tossed a shilling on to the bar counter and strolled to the door.

So his words had been futile!

“Housekeeper's leavin',” said the man, following him to the door. “Boss is goin' to marry Miss Glanvers?”

O'Dowd walked out into the street wondering. So it had turned out

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better than he had expected. He was immensely relieved, and marvelled a little at himself that he didn't feel more envious of Fort's good luck. But he had been accustoming himself to the idea so long. Poor devils like himself must grow accustomed to such things—to seeing their friends walk off with the plums, while the Dead Sea fruit remained their portion. Good luck to Frank! Dear old chap! Things would smoothen out now, and he must give them a decent wedding present out of that lately-arranged overdraft! Then he wondered when Mrs. Armitage was leaving the station.

Chapter III.

“Wasn't it kind of Mrs. Armitage? Instead of coming to the wedding, as he wanted her to, she said she must stay and fix the house up with flowers and things, and have everything ready for us when we got home,” said Rosie, looking down and blushing prettily.

“When does she leave?” asked O'Dowd laconically.

“We expect to pass her on the road,” said Rosie. “She wants to catch the morning's coach from the township. I hope I shall have a chance to thank her for all she did for Frank.” Rosie looked round for her new-made husband, as though afraid of losing him even for a moment.

Then the guests gathered round her to say good-bye, and wish her all the usual stereotyped things, wishes so often uttered, so seldom fulfilled. O'Dowd stood aside and speculated on many things, principally as to whether if he halted at the Half-way House this afternoon on his way home he should find Mrs. Armitage there. He didn't fancy that the bride and bridegroom would pass her on the road. There were two roads—the higher and the lower—leading to Fort's station. He surmised that Mrs. Armitage would have found out without much trouble from Frank as to which route he intended taking on the morrow, and would have decided that the black boy, who was to drive her to the township, should bring the buckboard the other way.

And so it turned out. Rosie forgot all about her before she reached her new home, and if Frank kept anxious eyes on the winding track she never noticed it. Thus does love make blind the brightest eyes.

When O'Dowd reined his horse at the sliprail before the slab-built Halfway House, he saw the station buckboard in the yard. He gave his horse to the knockabout, a disreputable-looking person, who only wore one brace to his patched moleskins, and who was reputed to be brother of a man of title at home, but who now scarcely remembered his own name, so long had he been in the mud, and stepped with a jingle of spurs on to the low galvanised iron-roofed verandah. The fat hostess came smiling to the door.

“It's rale good to see you, Mr. O'Dowd,” she said. “I s'pose as ye hev been to the wedding?”

O'Dowd said he had, and gave her all the details she craved, and then slid past her portliness into the coffee-room. Seated on the uncomfortable shiny horsehair sofa was the woman he wanted to see. She wore a black travelling hat and a light fawn dustcoat, and she had a large white motor

  ― 221 ―
veil tied under firm chin. She was one of the few women past their first youth who can wear hats in lieu of bonnets without becoming hard of feature and stern of expression in the process. Her white ungloved hands lay idle in her lap. O'Dowd noticed how her wedding-ring slipped back as she held out her hand to him. He also was not blind to the hate in her stormy eyes, quickly veiled by down-drooping lashes. He noticed that her eyelashes were quite black. He did not believe that she was even 40, in spite of her silver hair.

“Isn't it hot to-day?” she said lightly. He liked her for not showing an ostentatious interest in the wedding.

“Yes,” he said, and, the landlady bustling in, he ordered some sodawater.

“Don't mind drinking whisky before me,” Mrs. Armitage said, smiling, “If you want to.”

That was the beauty of this woman. She liked men to be at their ease, but women who were too adaptable—the old carping spirit! He told himself that he was an evil-minded beggar!

But he refrained from the whisky. When the landlady, with much gasping and hard breathing, had unwired and opened the bottle for him, and had spilt some on the best green tablecloth, much to her chagrin, and departed to attend to the wants of a swagman who was thumping on the bar counter, O'Dowd leaned back in his chair and took a long look at Mrs. Armitage. It was nice to see a woman who was always unruffled, whatever happened, even on the marriage day of the man she had meant to marry herself.

“You always look cool, anyway,” he said.

“I have travelled a great deal,” she said, with just a flicker in her eyes which made him think of wild forest creatures.

Percival rubbed his long hand thoughtfully over his red head.

“Aren't you tired of knocking about?” he asked, and then cursed himself for his mal apropos remark. He wondered what the station would look like without her, and how the yellow roses were getting on.

“I don't know,” she said. “The charm of life—as, no doubt, you have found out long ago—is its variety!”

“One thinks that for awhile, but later one gets older and stiffer in the joints, I suppose, and it seems then that one stands by and envies one's friends their wives and homes, and the same dear old jog trot, where one always knows just exactly what is going to happen next!”

“Do we ever know that?” she said softly. “Life is all one big surprise, until death comes, to most of us, as the greatest surprise of all.”

“And sometimes as the greatest good.” He looked out of the window on to the burning yellow-grassed plain, stretching out to miles of grey mirage, dancing like lakes of silver along the sky line.

And then, “So you are off by to-morrow's coach?”

“Yes.” She looked out of the window now, away in the direction of Fort's station.

“Will you ever be coming this way again?” he asked lamely. There was something at the back of his mind, insistent but elusive, which he knew that

  ― 222 ―
he had come here to say, and he could not place it, or frame it in words, and yet he knew if he went away without saying it he would go desolate.

She smiled her strange smile and shook her head. “I am on the wallaby again,” she said. “Looking for work!”

“What a shame!” He reddened as he said it, knowing that but for him —perhaps she knew it, too. She looked at him steadily, and the old mystery of the untamed thing looked out of her eyes. The determined smell of boiled cabbage and salt beef came in to them from the back regions, where the fat lady was presiding. Presently the girl would come in to lay the cloth for their early tea.

O'Dowd, in a sudden flash of illumination, which made him reel, found what it was that he wanted to say.

“If you would me,” he said, “I would chuck horseracing and settle down; by Heaven I would! I'd work; wouldn't I just work for you!”

He rose and stood over her, trembling with the strangeness of his discovery and the boldness of his words. He knew that he had never wanted anything in his life as he wanted her answer.

Her beautiful hands still lay in her lap, the wedding ring slipping forward on the third finger of her left hand. O'Dowd found time to wonder what manner of man had placed it there, and room in his heart to hate him, ere she said:

“So it was six for Mr. Fort and seven for yourself when you warned him against me!”

Silence, and the strong growing odour of cabbage water thrown out of the back door, and sinking slowly into the sun-baked earth of the yard.

A clink of glasses in the bar and a snatch of song from the swagman who was hurrying on with the knocking down of his fencing cheque. The raucous voice of a cockatoo, a pet of the landlady's, screeched, “It's time to get the cows now, Jim, blast yer!” and they heard the rattle of china. The girl would be here in a few minutes to set the table.

“Is that all you can say to me?” said O'Dowd, reaching for his hat. He felt so hopelessly in the wrong. How was he to explain to her that he had never contemplated making such an avowal as he had spoken to her a minute ago. It had all come over him so suddenly, such a sweeping away of defences, such an overpowering rush of feeling—but she was not the woman to believe him. Treachery of the savage she might have understood, or the quick thrust and the struggle of the male for his mate, but not such subtleties of error as his heart and brain had made. No: she was not the woman to believe that this was unpremeditated.

She clenched her hands tightly, and her lips curled back over her strong white teeth. He quailed before the scorn in her eyes.

“Yes, I have one thing more to say,” she answered, bitterly. “The last word between us. Go, and I pray that I may never have to look on your face again!”

The flop flop of the landlady's heavy slippers came along the creaking passage.

O'Dowd turned with no other word, and went out on to the verandah, calling to the knockabout to bring up his horse.

  ― 223 ―

As he turned in his saddle to glance back at the Half-way House, its white roof glimmering in the sun, he saw Mrs. Armitage come to the door and stand, looking after him.

How could he grudge her her triumph! It was fairly won.

So his last sight of F.'s housekeeper was the tall light-robed figure, framed in the rough wooden supports of the door, and her lips were smiling, smiling.

“You must come round the garden. We have made such a number of improvements, especially to the vegetable garden. Frank is taking such an interest in vegetables.”

Mrs. Fort was a charming little matron in her wide hat and large white apron. When O'Dowd arrived to pay his formal call that afternoon she told him that Frank was out on the run, and that she had been making pie-melon jam all day.

“I burnt the first lot,” she said, confidentially, and then offered to show him the garden. They skirted the grape vine trellis, and went down the path by the peach trees, and Rosie screamed as they caught sight of a black shining body among the long grass by the tennis court.

“So careless of the gardener to leave the grass long just there. It is a regular harbour for snakes,” she said, as they paused near what had once been the bed where the yellow roses grew.

It was freshly dug over, and there was not a sign of the Cloth of Gold.

“You've moved the rose!” said O'Dowd, regretfully.

“Yes; wasn't it a pity. Frank“—in an injured voice—”took it into his head that neither the gardener nor I understand roses, and he had them dug up and thrown away. I believe the man fed them to the cows! Wasn't it cruel? They did it one day when I was in the township. I cried when I came home. I felt so sorry for the poor things! And now Frank is having this made into a tomato bed. He said he hated the sight of the roses! Aren't men funny?” and she smiled wisely at her newly-acquired insight into the ways of the creature masculine.

O'Dowd was thoughtful as he rode home in the moonlight that night. Next week he was starting on a long droving job for the station, and he had several things to do before he turned in, but nevertheless he rode with slack rein, and let the horse choose its own pace.

Once he spoke his thoughts aloud.

“Rosie seems happy enough, anyway,” he said. “But Frank. … I wonder. … If he didn't care, why did he root up the roses?”

Later as his horse, drowsing, stumbled and nearly fell, he leaned forward and patted its neck softly.

“Suppose you had slung me and broken my neck, old man, would it have been a loss to anybody? Jove! To think that I should live more than 40 years in the world and not have learned to mind my own business!”

And then through the silver-scented night he rode on alone, as he was to ride all his days.